El Salvador: Sowing the seeds of peace

Giovanni working at his greenhouse
Giovanni working at his greenhouse. Photo: Mauricio Martínez / UNDP El Salvador

Giovanni’s face softens beneath the otherwise fearsome ink of his gang tattoos. As the 23-year-old bends over a row of pepper plants, his fingers dart carefully between them, plucking stray weeds in the greenhouse.

“Before, my life was a mess,” Giovanni confesses quietly. “Now I have a lot to do—there is no time to bother people.”

Not long ago, Giovanni spent his days living in the street as a member of one of El Salvador’s many violent gangs. With gang-related violence on the rise, El Salvador is considered to be one of the most violent countries in the world, with homicide rates twice as high as in other Latin American countries.

But in a formerly crime-ridden neighborhood in Santa Tecla, where even armed police once feared to tread, a UNDP-supported project is giving young men an alternative to a life of crime. Participants learn the basics of managing a small business such as growing and marketing crops that thrive on small urban plots and can be sold for a profit to local grocery stores.

Giovanni is one of the 180 beneficiaries enrolled in the “Young Entrepreneurs in Safe Cities” project. The project aims to provide at risk youth with alternative options to generate income and productively assimilate into their communities and society.  97 percent of the project's participants are either employed or have started their own small businesses.

Since 2007 UNDP has been helping officials to develop municipal observatories to track and analyze crime statistics. Using this information to diagnose trouble spots, UNDP has encouraged local authorities and community members to work together to reduce tensions and improve public spaces.

Actions such as restoring abandoned areas, policing neighbourhoods, and providing mechanisms for communities to mediate and resolve tensions, have cut crime in some instances by up to 45 percent.

"Across the country, UNDP intervention has begun to make a difference and has contributed to an overall decline in violence," says Marcela Smutt, coordinator Democratic Governance Area in UNDP El Salvador. "In several cities, between 2009 and 2013, homicide rates have fallen by as much as 60 percent. For example, they have fallen 57% in Santa Tecla, 86% in Sonsonate and 34% in San Salvador."

These successful programmes spurred the national government to adopt its first national policy on justice, security and a peaceful coexistence in 2010. By 2012, the government had set up a comprehensive prevention strategy for municipalities to continue and reinforce UNDP's work. So far, gun laws have been tightened, while government agencies now have the information and the tools to better enforce gun bans.

Giovanni knows that El Salvador has a long journey ahead. For the first time, dignified work and a legal income have made him feel responsible for the future: “I want my son to grow up the opposite of me, to get a degree, to wear a suit and tie, and to know that I am proud of him.”